Barbara Gordon, Emmy-winning television producer, documentary film-maker, cinematic crusader for the oppressed, writer, director, becomes, at 40, the star of her own nervous breakdown. Instead of exposing the psychiatric system, she becomes a victim of it.
A jest sets the tone and title of her book. A man and a woman meet at a singles resort in the Catskills. As they dance together on Saturday night, the man whispers an invitation: "I'm only here for the weekend." She replies: "I'm dancing as fast as I can."
And dance she does, to the looney-tune tempo of madhouse rock, a "true" tale of love and lunacy, live from New York City.
Gordon's story rings with authenticity embellished in the telling. Over the span of a few years, she has told her story to taxi drivers, waiters, department-store clerks, faithful and long-suffering friends, and more than 20 professional therapists who offer her Valium, Thorazine, and Lithium in the way of an airline steward offering coffee, tea, or milk. Her adventures are the stuff of comic fiction, but this is life - and it isn't always funny.
There's a relationship with a sadomasochistic Mr. Wonderful, severe "withdrawal" symptoms from a tranquilizer, a love affair with a burntout acid head 15 years her junior, and a psychiatric habit that eventually costs $1,800 a week.
In the beginning, Gordon thinks of herself as your everday Jewish neurotic with anxiety about something so trivial as going out for lunch, but she can camouflage this by the expedient of working through the day at her desk at CBS. For 10 years, bolstered by "success" in work and love, she manages this "ordinary" neurosis with the help of an Upper West Side psychiatrist with a nice river view.
Eric, her live-in lover of five years, is almost perfect. He lacks only money and friends of his own, but she has enough for two to share. The villain of the piece, along with shrinks (who come in various sizes and shapes) is "Prince Valium." As her anxiety increases, the doc with the river view increases her dosages of Valium to 30 milligrams a day. Encouraged by Eric to replace Valium with vitamins, supported by the psychiatrist to go off the tranquilizer cold turkey, she puts away the plastic vial. Her withdrawal symptoms precititate a complete emotional collapse.
Gordon censures the extravagances of psychiatry, "a fragile science," and catalogues the greedy, unethical, sometimes nutty psychiatrists that support a fine rage. But her powerful narrative suffers from her own limits of understanding, particularly when she forces "fragile science" into extravagant melodrama.
Valium is widely prescribed and can enormously valuable in reducing stress and anxiety when it is prescribed for short-term use for specific problems, and carefully monitored. However, Gordon writes page after page of her cavalier abuse of it, an exercise abetted by her psychiatrist. She draws no distinctions in its use, its benefits and side effects, even as she insists that her book was written out of a concern for "medical mismanagement . . . the softcore prescription-pad variety" of drug abuse.
She bibs wine and pops pills, mixing Valium and alcohol, but never turns her attention to the lethal potential of that combination. She does not explain how it was that she continued to see a psychiatrist for 10 years, unable to make improvement to walk out of her door in the morning without popping 10 milligrams of Valium. The line between her reality and her embellishment of it is often fuzzy; relatives, friends, and therapists are seen only in helpful or hurtful supporting roles. In the production of life, she says, "I was the entire cast."
Hers is the uncritical judgment of the new convert, and she concludes her story with a childlike faith in the newest and latest in her long line of therapists: "I began therapy (with my new psychiatrist). His intelligence, wisdom really, tenderness and humor became very important in my life." Could this be infatuation with still another nice river view?
But Barbara Gordon praises as she pans with a lively sense of humor, marking her path through crisis and psychosis with irreverent one-liners and occasionally irrelevant wisecracks. She still seeks a child's safe passage, and even if we don't learn why she wants to hold on to that long extension of the umbilical cord, we do get a vivid sense of her entanglements with it.